Neil Padukone recently completed a visiting fellowship at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is currently writing a book on the future of conflict in South Asia.
A number of recent posts on the Inside Islam blog have highlighted the rise in xenophobic attitudes towards Muslims. The latest Inside Islam Radio Show spoke with Robert Wright, who discussed the latest wave of Islamophobia in the US and the parallels it may have with the history of homophobia.
Wright argues that “playing the homophobia card is costlier than playing the Islamophobia card. Or at least, the costs are more evenly spread across the political spectrum.” While the political and religious right has often encouraged Islamophobia, it has increasingly embraced even gay rights. He cites “American Grace,” a well-researched book on religious tolerance by the social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, who provide a ‘bridging’ explanation for tolerance. Tolerance, they argue, is basically a question of getting to know different people and collaborating with them in life and work – especially participating in activities in which goals are shared.
“People all over America knew and liked gay people [for decades] — they just didn’t realize these people were gay,” Wright says. “So by the time gays started coming out of the closet, the bridge had already been built.” In the case of Islam, Muslims in America are small in population and concentrated in certain geographic areas. So when the only experience many Americans have with Muslims is news reports about Osama bin Laden, ‘bridging’ is made that much more difficult.
In addition to homosexuals, the histories of two other religious minorities’ integration into the American mainstream are telling: some argue that Irish Catholics were accepted by an initially hostile Protestant population only by joining in the oppression of African Americans, while the relatively small number of Jews in America “became White” by following the American dream – by becoming rich!
But many Muslims face the additional challenge of race and difference in physical appearance, biases against which are often engrained into our subconscious; Nicholas Kristof mentions how ”some scholars link racial attitudes to a benefit in evolutionary times from an ability to form snap judgments about who is a likely friend and foe…There’s some evidence that the amygdala, a center in the brain for emotions, flashes a threat warning when it perceives people who look ‘different.’”
Yet another source of prejudice like Islamophobia may be mere political manipulation. As NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg pointed out, Park51 faced absolutely no opposition when it was first announced in 2008 – even earning Fox News’ endorsement. But in an election year the same figures pounced upon the initiative as foreign and nefarious; there was political leverage to gain in doing so.
While Islamophobia may stem from a lack of narratives for many Americans – i.e. a fear of the “unknown” – political agendas can make things worse.
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